Tagged Mobile Applications

An App to Deconstruct Your Food


A screenshot of the Sage app.

A screenshot of the Sage app.Credit

Ever wondered how long you’d have to swim to burn off the calories in an organic peanut butter cup? Or how far the strawberries or burger on your plate traveled to get there?

For answers, ask the Sage Project, one of the latest of the food technology companies helping consumers navigate nutrition. While a number of food apps count calories and track eating habits, Sage goes beyond the food label to give customers additional information about additives and preservatives, how much sugar has been adding during processing or how far a food has traveled.

“Food labels are a data visualization that we see every day, but we don’t get a lot from them,” said Sam Slover, the co-founder and chief executive of Sage. “There are a lot of things about those labels that make assumptions about what you know and what you want to know.”

Do we really need another food app? Apple’s app store already lists more than three dozen apps offering users information and advice about calories, nutrition data and weight loss, but research shows that many consumers have a failed relationship with their food apps. For instance, in January, about 16 percent of the people who downloaded the Lose It app were using it once a day. By June, only 10 percent were using it that often, according to research firm 7Park Data.

“These apps have trouble keeping customers loyal — if you use them successfully, you don’t need them any more, and if you don’t use them successfully, you may not think it’s worth it to try more,” said Byrne Hobart, the lead analyst at 7Park Data. “They’re kind of like the dating apps that way.”

The Sage app hopes to inspire more loyalty by providing a trove of useful and quirky information about the food you eat. It contains data on about 20,000 products, though you still may not find your favorite junk foods. Most of the products in the database are described as “natural” and “organic.” But if you shop at Whole Foods, you’re in luck. Sage has partnered with Whole Foods Market, deconstructing all of the roughly 7,000 items sold in the grocer’s new “365” store chains in Los Angeles and Lake Oswego, Ore.

To begin using Sage, which is available online or as a web-based app, a user signs up and enters any food restrictions and personal preferences. Only want to see products without additives and preservatives? No problem. Interested in digestive health? Sage will comb through its database and show you products with probiotics, high fiber and whole grains.

The app displays a wide variety of information using colorful graphics and animated food characters, and it’s surprisingly fun and entertaining to use. The app told me that Surf Sweet gummy bears, for instance, do have a fair amount of added sugar but also have “good nutrient density,” meaning that, among other things, they supply a high amount of vitamin C (much to my delight). A jump-roping chocolate bar informs me that I’d need to jump rope for 19 minutes — or a snorkeling olive recommends 23 minutes of swimming — to burn off a serving of Justin’s Organic milk chocolate peanut butter cups.

“Customers want a better understanding of how a product is sourced, the quality standards behind it, whether the labor that made it was paid a fair wage, its impact on the environment,” said Jason Buechel, the chief information officer at Whole Foods. “This is a way to give them all that information that isn’t captured on the nutrition label.”

Take the Beast Burger, for instance, a meatless burger sold at Whole Foods. Type the name of the burger into Sage or flip through a list, and you’ll find its basic nutritional profile and calorie content, with highlights of its nutritional strengths.

Using animated food characters — a pear doing yoga, a watermelon riding a bike — the app shows how much exercise would be required to work off the burger. In my case, it’s 20 minutes of running, 22 minutes of jumping rope, 28 minutes of swimming or biking, 44 minutes of dance or 89 minutes of yoga.

Sage also identifies any allergens — corn and seeds in the case of the Beast Burger — and offers detailed explanations of all the burger’s ingredients, and why they’re used should you be interested. For instance: “Calcium chloride, a salt, is used in canned goods to improve stability and quality and as a firming agent in tofu production.”

The system awards “badges” to the burger for things like an abundance of healthy fats and protein and having recyclable packaging, and it explains what diets — dairy free, gluten free, vegan, vegetarian and ketogenic — it does not violate. To make nutrition recommendations like “fiber friendly” or “heart healthy,” Sage uses nutritional standards set by the Food and Drug Administration and the American Heart Association. An in-house team of dietitians and nutritionists have created standards for badges like “healthy fats” or “contains probiotics” — areas where the F.D.A. doesn’t set guidelines.

Finally, the app tells you where the product is made or sourced. The Beast Burger is American made. If you decided to check out Driscoll strawberries, you might learn your batch came from Mexico.

It also can tailor daily nutritional requirements to a user’s specific weight, height and lifestyle. For instance, Sage came up with a recommended daily caloric intake of about 3,300 calories that is rich in protein for Mr. Slover, given his height, weight and exercise routine — he’s a triathlete. It recommended a 1,600-calorie diet with a lower portion of protein for his mother.

“All those things on a label telling you that a product gives you, say, 10 percent of the daily requirement of protein is based on a default, 2,000-calorie-day diet, a kind of one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t work,” Mr. Slover said.

One thing the Sage app won’t tell you is what you should or shouldn’t eat. You will have to figure that out for yourself. “I’m not a big fan of red, yellow and green scoring mechanisms for food,” Mr. Slover said. “I don’t think they’re well received by consumers or used very much.”

10 Children’s Apps for Summer Road Trips


Credit iStock

The car is packed, the pets have sitters and the GPS is programmed. But have you properly prepped your children’s devices?

While there are many apps that can keep a child busy, the best are those designed to promote active, engaged, meaningful and social learning, researchers say.

Here are some recent apps for the job. Most work without a Wi-Fi tether, are free or very affordable and are rich in bite-size bits of interaction, making them easy to pass around the car. Platform and price information change frequently, so check your favorite app store for the latest information.




Chomp by Christoph Niemann, Fox and Sheep GmbH ($2.99 on iOS, Android), is a powerful, easy-to-use video creativity experience that combines hand-drawn animations with real-time video. You’ll find your face inside 52 spring-loaded gags that you can try out simply by looking into the camera, and swiping. Pass this app around and give everyone a chance — except the driver.



HangArt: Play Hangman, Draw Pictures, Tell Stories by Literary Safari ($1.99 on iOS, Android) brings the age-old game of hangman to your road trip, using words straight out of a school reading curriculum. The two-player mode can promote cooperative play.



Heads Up! Kids by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (99 cents with in-app purchases, on iOS and Android) is another fun, social word game that is a simplified version of the Ellen DeGeneres game, in which you hold your device up to your forehead and ask someone else for a clue. The initial download contains six decks of virtual cards on topics like animals; extras cost a dollar each.



Moonbeeps: Gizmo by Moonbot Studios ($1.99 on iPad, iPhone) turns your tablet into a pretend dashboard full of dials and switches that are perfect for imaginary play, say, for turning your minivan into a submarine.



Sago Mini Robot Party ($2.99 on iPad, iPhone) contains a set of rubbery robot parts that can be mixed and matched. We like how easy it is to be silly with this app. You can use the sock for a head, for example, or put two heads on the feet and flip the robot upside down.

FOR OLDER CHILDREN (ages 8 and up)



MSQRD — Live Filters & Face Swap for Video Selfies by Masquerade Technologies (free on iPad, Android) is like sticking your head inside a magical mirror where you can try on some glow-in-the-dark face paint, or do a face swap with the person sitting next to you — and you can post it on Facebook. Keep this one far away from the driver.



Thinkrolls 2 by Avokiddo ($2.99 on iPad, Android, Kindle) lets you swipe your way through a series of increasingly challenging mazes. This is the second app in the series, and it’s well named because it gently introduces properties of matter and physics. You discover that things do more than “roll.” They can also float, glide and teleport through the 270 levels.



Stack the States 2 by Freecloud Design ($2.99 on iPad, iPhone) for ages 7 and up is a great app for learning about the United States while you drive through it. The app quizzes you on the capital, shape and location of each state. You can now zoom in for a 3-D view of the details on key cities and landmarks.



Toca Life: Vacation by Toca Boca ($2.99 on iPad, iPhone) transforms your back seat into a tropical resort, with its own airport, hotel and island. There’s no way to fail with this free-play app, and there’s room for plenty of cooperative play.



Finding Dory: Just Keep Swimming by Disney ($3.99 on iPad, Android, Kindle) delivers plenty of well-illustrated, slippery fun in this maze game. There are 13 levels, each inspired by the movie, and it’s easy to revisit an already mastered level, so a little brother or sister can have a turn. Make sure children know that they can pause the game at any point.




Traveling at night? Turn your vehicle into a rolling planetarium with Star Walk HD ($2.99 for iPad, Android). You’ll be able to predict when and where the moon will come up, or confirm if the bright star is actually Saturn.

Google Maps is a wonderful family resource. You can install a second version on your child’s Android or Apple device, saving on data costs by using the “offline map feature.” As you drive, your child can view the scrolling maps, and help you find landmarks or navigation, dropping pins on favorite places along the way. Show your child how to toggle between satellite, topographic and regular map modes, and use the Street View feature to follow your car.

Finally, Siri loves geography facts. Besides knowing “how many people live in Detroit,” she can tell you current altitude, or where the closest rest area might be. She’ll also have the exact answer, in miles, to that age-old back-seat question, “Are we there yet?”

A Shocking Way (Really) to Break Bad Habits


Credit Kim Murton

Every January for the past decade, Jessica Irish of Saline, Mich., has made the same New Year’s Resolution: to “cut out late night snacking and lose 30 pounds.” Like millions of Americans, Ms. Irish, 31, usually makes it about two weeks.

But this year is different.

“I’ve already lost 18 pounds,” she said, “and maintained my diet more consistently than ever. Even more amazing — I rarely even think about snacking at night anymore.”

Ms. Irish credits a new wearable device called Pavlok for doing what years of diets, weight-loss programs, expensive gyms and her own willpower could not. Whenever she takes a bite of the foods she wants to avoid, like chocolate or Cheez-Its, she uses the Pavlok to give herself a lightning-quick electric shock.

“Every time I took a bite, I zapped myself,” she said. “I did it five times on the first night, two times on the second night, and by the third day I didn’t have any cravings anymore.”

As the name suggests, the $199 Pavlok, worn on the wrist, uses the classic theory of Pavlovian conditioning to create a negative association with a specific action. Next time you smoke, bite your nails or eat junk food, one tap of the device or a smartphone app will deliver a shock. The zap lasts only a fraction of a second, though the severity of the shock is up to you. It can be set between 50 volts, which feels like a strong vibration, and 450 volts, which feels like getting stung by a bee with a stinger the size of an ice pick. (By comparison, a police Taser typically releases about 50,000 volts.)

Other gadgets and apps dabble in behavioral change by way of aversion therapy, such as the $49 MotivAider that is worn like a pager, or the $99 RE-vibe wristband. Both can be set to vibrate at specific intervals as a reminder of a habit to break or a goal to reach. The $80 Lumo Lift posture coach is a wearable disk that vibrates when you slouch. The $150 Spire clip-on sensor tracks physical activity and state of mind by detecting users’ breathing patterns. If it detects you’re stressed or anxious, it vibrates or sends a notification to your smartphone to take a deep breath.

But the Pavlok takes things a step further, delivering a much stronger message.

To test the device, I wore it for a week, zapping myself every time I ate dessert. My goal was to curb my craving for sweets after dinner. First I zapped myself before and after I ate a square of dark chocolate, and did it again later in the week after eating ice cream, a red velvet cupcake and a chocolate chip cookie.

Set on low, it feels like a strong tickle. Set on high, it hurts. A lot.

It should be noted that the creator of Pavlok, Maneesh Sethi, once hired a woman to sit next to him and slap him on the face every time she saw him using Facebook, so he could increase his productivity. I called Mr. Sethi and told him that if we ever met, I’d try not to punch him in the face for creating such an awful torture device. “Yeah, I get that a lot,” Mr. Sethi said with a chuckle. “People either love it or hate it.”

“It’s not designed to be painful,” he added. “It’s instantaneous, a surprise sensation, a shock that knocks you out of automatic mode.”

But does this kind of self-imposed aversion therapy actually work?

“The most clever thing about this gadget is the name,” said Dr. Peter Whybrow, a Los Angeles author, psychiatrist and neuroscientist. “It’s an expensive spin on the idea of wearing an elastic band that you snap on your wrist to stop a certain behavior.”

Dr. Marc Potenza, a professor of psychiatry at Yale, says researchers have questioned the ethical nature of shock intervention when more comfortable options like cognitive behavioral therapies, pharmaceutical interventions and 12-step programs are available.

The practice of aversion therapy has been around for 80 years. Schick Shadel Hospital, based in Seattle, reports that it has successfully treated more than 65,000 people for alcohol or drug addiction using counter-conditioning methods like emetic drugs, which make people feel nauseated if they drink alcohol, or supervised shock therapy. The hospital’s medical director, Dr. Kalyan Dandala, said that he was interested in using Pavlok to help people continue recovery once they finish the 10-day inpatient treatment, but added that the device should be professionally supervised.

“It’s better suited as a prescribed tool for behavior modification,” Dr. Dandala said. “The company needs to refine it, put more education in the tool, and have more oversight.”

Michelle Freedland, a psychiatric nurse practitioner in Manhattan, has worked with five patients who use the device for nail biting, addictions, compulsive behaviors and more.

“When one of my patients told me he was using it last year to help him get out of bed in the morning, I was skeptical at first,” she said. “I mean, the notion of being shocked — you can have a little reservation. But when you understand how to use it properly and people are more engaged in their own treatment, they tend to follow through with it more.”

Mr. Sethi, the founder, said the company had just begun to collect data on the long-term success of the device, and was planning a clinical trial later this spring. The Pavlok has been available since November, and he said about 10,000 people had used it.

Despite the potential for pain and the lack of science backing a long-term effect, user feedback on Facebook groups and message boards has been enthusiastic about the device, especially as a last resort for problems like overeating and binge drinking.

Bud Hennekes, 24, a blogger in St. Louis, said he had used Pavlok to kick a nearly two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. “When I tried to quit before, I still had the craving to smoke,” he said. “When I used Pavlok, the cravings completely went away. I don’t know if it’s science or a placebo effect or what, and I don’t really care because it worked.”


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Swipe Right to Connect Young People to H.I.V. Testing


A screenshot of the Healthvana app.

A screenshot of the Healthvana app.Credit

Midway through her sophomore year of high school, my patient told her parents that she had missed two periods and was worried she might be pregnant.

Stunned to learn that she was sexually active, her parents took her to the pediatrician, who had another surprise: She wasn’t pregnant but she did have H.I.V.

I met her a few days later in my H.I.V. clinic, and watched her start crying as I told her that her H.I.V. was advanced and that she needed antiviral treatments really soon.

Sadly, her story of late diagnosis is far from uncommon. Ten thousand people ages 13 to 24 are given H.I.V. diagnoses every year in the United States, and epidemiologists estimate fully half of young people with H.I.V. do not know it. While the virus is no longer considered the death sentence it was decades ago, late diagnoses like my patient’s can undermine the life-saving benefits of antiviral medications, leading to greater risk of AIDS and death.

Part of the problem is the low rate of H.I.V. testing in young people, despite the recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that every sexually active person over the age of 13 get tested. Earlier this year, C.D.C. researchers reported in Pediatrics that pediatricians and parents are testing five times fewer young people for H.I.V. than recommended by national guidelines. Only 22 percent of sexually active high school students were ever tested for H.I.V., and, even worse, the likelihood that young women like my patient were tested for H.I.V. actually fell from 2011 to 2013.

Tio Pier, a Stanford University student who advocates for testing and sexual health education, says his high school teachers provided basic education about H.I.V. in a health class but, “they don’t follow up and say, ‘and if you feel like you need a testing resource you could go here…’ There was none of that.” Indeed, a 2015 survey showed that less than half of sexually active gay and bisexual adolescents even knew where they could get an H.I.V. test.

A number of groups are working on ways to improve access to H.I.V. testing for young people. Tim Kordic, a health educator with the Los Angeles Unified School District, is partnering with a company called Healthvana to place educational posters about H.I.V. in classrooms and provide students with a free iPhone app that harnesses GPS technology to locate nearby H.I.V. testing facilities.

Most public health departments and community health clinics offer free H.I.V. testing to people of all ages, and in New York and 30 other states, children under 18 have legal access to H.I.V. testing without parental notification. Kids who test positive can access life-saving H.I.V. therapy early, with drug costs often covered by the federally funded Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program. Kids who test negative leave the clinic better educated and probably with a pocketful of free condoms.

Ramin Bastani, the chief executive of Healthvana, says their app has delivered the results of over 200,000 H.I.V. and sexually transmitted infection tests to patients at participating health care providers across the country. The confidential service also gives users information on how to access treatment if a result is positive. Some young people post negative H.I.V. testing results on social media as a way of encouraging others to get tested, Mr. Bastani said.

Healthvana isn’t the only app seeking to connect youth to H.I.V. testing. The United States Department of Health and Human Services has its own locator app pointing out nearby testing services and a panoply of other resources like H.I.V. care, substance abuse services and housing assistance. Yet another app connects users to free condoms, and there is even a mobile game designed to sensitize youth to the risks of teenage pregnancy.

“It’s hard for teenagers to physically go places, and to know that they will be welcomed,” says Karen Rayne, a sexuality educator and author of the book “Breaking the Hush Factor: Ten Rules for Talking With Teenagers about Sex.” To Dr. Rayne, the privacy of a mobile app – including the ability to delete the app after use – is a great way to “draw teens out” and “give them the confidence to access a public physical space” like an H.I.V. testing clinic.

Mobile phone apps that connect youth to H.I.V. testing cannot supplant other proven H.I.V. prevention methods. Kids still need quality health education in school and optional school-based H.I.V. testing. Most important, kids need caring parents who support access to high-quality care.

My patient didn’t have access to any of these resources. Fearing fellow churchgoers would judge them for her diagnosis, her parents kicked her out of the house. She fought to finish high school while sleeping on a neighbor’s couch and struggled to take medications and keep her medical appointments. At 18 she moved to a new state, hoping to start a new life.

She and the 10,000 other young people in the United States given H.I.V. diagnoses every year deserve more. They need evidence-based sex education, supportive parenting and better access to the H.I.V. testing information that could save their lives.

Tim Lahey, M.D., M.M.Sc., is an H.I.V. physician, ethicist and director of education at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice in Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine. He is a member of the Dartmouth Public Voices Fellowship.


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